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Clothes Make the Woman: 1940s Style on Display

This gown is a copy of Christian Dior's 1947 Columbine celadon green evening dress, made of rayon and cotton satin.
Christine Arrasmith, NPR
This gown is a copy of Christian Dior's 1947 Columbine celadon green evening dress, made of rayon and cotton satin.

A new exhibit, Fabulous! Fashions of the 1940s, showcases an emergence of American style that was born of necessity, as fashion capitals in Europe were cut off from U.S. audiences. In the mid 1940s, designers like Claire McCardell, Norman Norell, Adrian (Adrian Adolph Greenberg) and Tina Lesser became fashion stars, with easygoing clothing informed by sports and leisure. The result was a new, free, American look.

But the '40s exhibit, at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, also includes wartime uniforms, devised for women's units like the WAC and WAV. The military clothes on display attracted the attention of one particular visitor, Alma Powell -- wife of former Secretary of State Colin Powell. While the Navy uniform hasn't changed much over the years, Powell says the Army uniform has come a long way since its 1943 version.

Powell says that when women were brought into the service, a big question loomed. "They can't be too attractive. Don't want to cause incidents. She says the uniform -- serious khaki jacket and skirt -- reflects the Army's conclusion, that "they should be trim and professional, like the men."

The show's organizers say that interpretation fits fashion's role, to reflect society's ideas. Valerie Steele heads New York's Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, which collected the clothing exhibit at the Kennedy Center. Fashion, Steele insists, "is a big cannibal that eats up everything."

The Fashion Institute of Technology and the Kennedy Center's exhibit, Fabulous! Fashions of the 1940s, is on display at the Kennedy Center until April 14.

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Nationally renowned broadcast journalist Susan Stamberg is a special correspondent for NPR.
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